Bob, Captain, USAF

By Ray Medeiros

We arrived at Cam Ranh Bay in two C -141's on 3 January 1969 and were the second half of the rotational personnel for the 555 Red Horse Squadron, a self- sufficient construction unit located just outside the main gate of Cam Ranh Air Force Base. REDHORSE was a concept developed by Air Force Civil Engineering in 1965/66 to meet the unique facilities requirements of the Air Force. Each unit was comprised of 400 military, with 16 officers, including one Doctor. Assigned personnel and equipment were self-sufficient to design and construct all facilities required for a complete operational Air Base. We employed over 1000 Vietnamese who performed most of the unskilled heavy labor. The Squadron was equipped with heavy earth movers, bulldozers, cement mixing truck's, asphalt pavers, and 5 and 10 ton Mack trucks etc . At Cam Ranh Bay we also had a rock crushing plant and a concrete block making plant. We had various Detachments located throughout Vietnam at various times. I was assigned as the Deputy Commander.

About a week after we had arrived, a Captain and a First Lieutenant came to my office and introduced themselves as Bob Russ and I believe the First Lieutenant was his copilot, Rybak. They were part of the 558 Tactical Fighter Squadron, which in turn was part of the 12th Fighter Wing; one of the major units on the base. After a short introduction, Russ indicated they would there to see if they could get some plywood, two by fours and some romex electrical cable. Each of the Squadrons had unofficial officers clubs, and Russ wanted the materials for a small project that he was preparing at their offices club. Capt. Russ indicated that he had appeared on the most recent majors list, and that he was preparing for a promotion party on 25 January. Not yet having indicated that we would provide the plywood etc. I asked who he had planned would be to his party. He got the hint, and asked if some of the Red Horse officers would like to attend. After informing him that I thought that was a nice gesture on his part, I expected that all of our 16 officers would be pleased to attend. I then called for Lieut. Stokes, our Production Control officer, and Capt. Jones who was in charge of our shops and asked them to ensure that Capt. Russ would be issued the materials, and that an electrician would help them with the electrical work to insure a safe installation. All the Red Horse officers were informed of the invitation and they, as well as numerous other officers on the base was looking forward to the promotion party.

On the afternoon of 24 January, the base was informed that Capt. Russ and Lieut. Rybak had been shot down by enemy ground fire and had ejected from their F-4. Shortly thereafter we found out that both pilots had been rescued by Huey helicopter, and were transferred to the hospital at Da Nang, and that Capt. Russ had a serious back injury from the ejection. Base personnel having been relieved by the fact that the officers had been retrieved and were safe; were obviously concerned that the promotion party would have to be postponed. Although Capt. Russ did not feel that the injuries were bad enough to keep him at the hospital in Da Nang, causing him to miss or postpone his promotion party, the doctors were not about to release him. In the morning of the 25th, an aircraft arrived at Da Nang; either by coincidence or design, (the details of which I am not privy); and Capt. Russ arranged to leave the hospital, knowing that he would receive proper care in the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay. Word that he was about to arrive at Cam Ranh Bay quickly spread throughout the base, and a large group was there to meet his aircraft when he arrived in mid-afternoon. And he announced that the promotion party was on as scheduled.

Obviously, with all the highs and lows of the previous 36 hours, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the celebration. My most memorable event of that day was during the party, with Bob Russ standing with his back pressed against the wall, because it was too painful for him to sit or stand without the support of the wall, and a drink in his hand. Myself, a couple of other officers, and two young Lieutenant pilots who had just arrived and had not yet flown any missions, were discussing his experience of being shot down. The following is my recollection of what he related.

(At this time, may I remind any readers that Peace Talks were taking place in Paris, and any incursion by US Forces into Laos was considered detrimental to the talks. After TET, NVA troops retreated into the A Shau Valley, which was a 21 miles long and 6 miles wide valley that led to the HO CHI MINH Trail in Laos/Cambodia. General Abrams had approved “Operation Dewey Canyon” (JAN 22, 1969- March 18, 1970) in an attempt to reduce the effectiveness of the NVA build-up. Any reference to actions in Laos or Cambodia was strictly controlled.)

Major Russ said that he and his wingman had the mission of support of the US forces that were engaged with the NVA up and around the A Shau Valley. During his second pass at a stronghold he encountered heavy ground-fire that disabled his aircraft and forced him and his co-pilot to eject; right in the middle of the heavily NVA infested area. His Wingman remained in the area, determining the exact position of the downed pilots, and making interdictory passes on the NVA, who had seen the parachutes and were moving to capture the pilots. They had dropped into the jungle where a thick foliage of cover made it difficult for aircraft to determine their exact location. His Wingman circled the area to identify their position. Within minutes of reaching the ground, Russ said that he looked up and saw all manner of US aircraft; OV-10 Broncos marking targets, F-4 Phantoms, A-4 SkyHawks, A-7 Corsairs, A-26’s and T-28’s, all making strafing runs and bomb drops on the NVA that were rapidly closing in.. The good feeling came when he heard the friendly patter of the Jolly Green Giant overhead, and the SAR Para-rescue Specialist dropped down to pick them up. In his words; “It was as though the WHOLE of the United States had come to our rescue”.

Those words have remained with me for over forty years and will remain till the day I die. It exemplifies the basic core of military comradeship and values, and it instills the morale and espirit de corps of every trooper that goes into combat. I do not know how many times Major Russ may have repeated that story to young impressionable Lieutenants and others; but I am sure it was a factor in his eventual promotion to be a 4-Star General and the Commander of the Tactical Air Command from 1985 till his retirement in 1991. Unfortunately, he did not enjoy a full, long retirement and he passed away in May 1997.

Ray Medeiros Lt Col USAF (ret) Received 2/14/13 by TFS